The Illinois Supreme Court may slip into a quagmire of church-state and confidentiality issues if it chooses to review a lower court’s ruling that the Archdiocese of Chicago can withhold from investigators information about priests accused of sexually abusing children.

In his November 16 ruling, Judge Thomas Fitzgerald may have widened the legal definition of “pastoral privilege,” which protects information shared between priests and parishioners, by including conversations and documents produced during a church investigation of a priest’s misconduct.

In preparing the appeal, Patrick O’Brien, chief deputy prosecutor for the Illinois state’s attorney’s office, said the lower court interpreted the statute much too broadly. O’Brien said information confessed to a priest is considered confidential, but ceases to be protected outside the confessional.

“The question is not the right of the church to conduct internal investigations,” O’Brien told CHRISTIANITY TODAY, “but the question of what they do with that internal investigation once it’s conducted.”

In explaining his decision, Judge Fitzgerald said that the language of the statute on pastoral privilege “seems to go well beyond confessions and admissions. I read the words of this statute to be quite broad.”

Once the judge’s ruling was made, the Roman Catholic archdiocese successfully quashed subpoenas filed by the state’s attorney’s office, which is appealing the case.

Keep information private

Lavenski Smith, a church-state lawyer with the Washington-based Rutherford Institute, said the case underscores the tension between the legitimate interests of state and church. Smith, who previously worked as a legal advocate for abused children, said there may be “an overriding interest” in ...

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